I recently watched 25th Hour, Spike Lee’s 2002 effort . The way I came to this film was purely coincidental. While doing a search on great long shots in film, I happened to stumble upon someone’s top 10 list of great movie speeches and monologues. Ed Norton’s (or is that Edward now?) F#@* You scene was selected on this list as the number one great movie speech/monologue. Indeed, it is a quite powerful representation of the man v. himself motif. The purpose of this essay is not to debate the greatness of individual scenes in various movies, so I will refrain from commenting on the choices of the anonymous blogger who put that list together.
Not knowing the context since I had never heard of the film, I nearly turned it off when Norton’s tirade turned to Jesus Christ. I was riveted (and apalled) at what I was hearing and did not notice the hanging head in front of the mirror where this scene takes place. At the end of the scene, Norton’s character comes back to himself and rejects his ruthless tormentor and all the vile vitriol he’s been spewing for the past five minutes with a memorable declaration: (NOTE: you won’t want to run this within earshot of the kids).
This is, indeed, a powerful monologue. Lee, as he often does in his work, pieces together a visually compelling scene sequence to go along with the pride-of-Satan monolgue of Monty’s alter ego. It was this scene that moved me to watch the whole film. Sadly, it did not hold up to expectations. The problem I have with this scene is that it comes too early, just thirty-five minutes into the film. It seems to come too early because the film is virtually bereft of any character development after this point with the touching exception of Monty’s father, James Brogin who, with a stirring monologue of his own accompanied by another carefully crafted scene sequence closes the film – almost an hour later. In between these two scene sequences there are numerous forgettable scenes that strike this viewer as character sketches or tableux.
When I discovered the film was directed by Spike Lee, I decided to view it because I like a good deal of Lee’s work. Yet, the film left me demoralized and almost angry, not because of the content but, rather, because of the lack of content. Presented to us here in this strange admixture of characters in 25th Hour are another set of lamentable inductees into the pantheon of men without chests.
Spike Lee directed this film, he did not write it. The screenplay was written by David Benioff, the same man who wrote the novel upon which the screenplay is based. Lee did his job adequately in terms of creating mood. Varying shades of gray, white and blue wash over the scenes signifying the varying degrees of culpability applied to Montgomery Brogin, the protagonist, by himself, his friends and his father. Is Monty a figure who warrants our sympathy or not? The scenes most illumined with a natural light are those of Monty and his live-in girlfriend Naturelle Riveira. Their luxurious apartment, presumably somewhere in midtown or the upper east side, is imbued with soft sunlight. However, Naturelle is suspect as well. Monty wonders if he can trust her and so we do, too.
In terms of cinematography, the film was also disappointing.The setting is New York City, an endlessly photogenic and “filmable” city. Where is it? I would have liked more long to medium shots of the city and its magnificent bridges. Lee does give us some pleasing long shots alongside the river, Hudson or East I cannot tell, where Monty likes to sit and ponder things. This is where we find Monty at the beginning of the film, just after he has been “touched” by the Feds for selling drugs. He returns to this spot with his two quandom best friends Francis and Jake near the end of the film. In both scenes, the sky is heavily overcast; a steel gray horizon the color of prison bars seems to be clamping down upon Monty as his last hour as a free man comes to a close. It used to be, even as recently as Terentino’s Pulp Fiction, that with visually resonant shots showing the story, there was also interesting characterization in film. (Incidentally, Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable final scene in Pulp Fiction also made the same top ten list.) To stay with Pulp Fiction for another moment, there is more characterization in Jackson’s lines (as Jules) about how he used to read and interpret the verses from Ezekiel than there is in the whole of 25th Hour. Where is that unfolding of Monty Brogin? Has he learned anything or did he just get caught? Does he regret anything, really, or is he just concerned with getting through the next seven years with his anus intact? In fact, the only thing Monty seems particularly concerned about is whether Naturelle turned him in or not. But, even this does not seem to keep him awake at night. When Jules says to Ringo in the closing moments of Pulp Fiction (with a pistol pointed sqarely at the amateur criminal) “I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the Shepherd,” we believe him. We see the nascent stirrings of something, the spark of conscience one hopes, a life based on a better interpretation of Ezekiel. No such revelatory moment comes with Monty’s character, presumably because there is nothing to reveal. This is true of Monty and his friends.
The next authentically human scene is when Monty tells his best friend Francis to “make me look ugly.” This comes just after Monty’s handing over of the dog leash to his other good friend Jake. The gesture is supposed to be pregnant with pathos but it is totally devoid of anything dramatically compelling. This was the dog Monty saved in the opening scene of the film and which joined him on his jaunty perambulations around the city. (Did you ever notice how characters in movies never carry little baggies for poop when walking their dogs?) But, like Monty’s relationship with Naturelle, his relationship with the dog never takes root. And, why won’t Naturelle take the dog? What woman who loves her man would not keep his beloved dog as a memento, something of the man to hold on to? To return to Francis, he refuses Monty’s request to use his face as a punching bag so that the inmates at Otisville won’t take him as their baby. Monty thinks a bruised and swollen face will prevent further abuse in prison. Monty discerns that Francis is not going grant his request, so he provokes him until finally Francis lets loose and pummels Monty more brutally perhaps than even Monty thought he would. Jacob finally comes in and drags Francis off of Monty. Francis then falls apart with a hopeless remorse that seems to cry out against the injustice of those who love someone (a spouse, friend, sibling, etc.) being devastated by the actions of the beloved. Here is the scene.
Again, what is most compelling about this scene is not what the protagonist is experiencing but rather his friend. Francis probably would have really wanted to beat the snot out of Monty once he thought about things and how it was Monty’s foolishness that brought about these morbid circumstances. Along the plodding way of this film, which is far too self-conscious, Monty’s two friends lightly chastise themselves for not doing something, for not stepping in when they saw Monty choosing the path of a derelict. Yet, this leaves another untenable situation in this film. The conflict is that there had been no conflict at an earlier time. I would make the same argument here that T.S. Eliot made against Hamlet’s motive of hating his mother. It’s just not a strong enough motive to sustain the film dramatically. And, given the bizarre and oddly banal conversation that takes place between Francis and Jake over dinner before going to see Monty, during which they highlight what they really don’t like about each other, we are not surprised these two men did not step in and give Monty the reality check he needed. More men without chests. Francis and Jake both hold down respectable jobs, but they are just as empty as Monty.
And what are we to make of Naturelle? Like the poorly defined men in this film, we are left with the ambiguity of an equally ill-defined woman. Like most of the scenes in this film, she is shrouded in an obfuscating half-light that prevents motives and actions from being scene in full relief. Yet, rather than heightening the drama, this only ends up boring the viewer. We want to see characters throw their cards on the table at some point. A better screenwriter would have been able to create a kind of situational irony that left Monty in ignorance while allowing us, the viewers, the either sympathize with or hate Naturelle. Significantly, Naturelle is not the last person with whom Monty spends his last free hours. There is not even any tender moment of separation. There is a brief adieu at the door with Monty’s father waiting. This should be a moment that puts a lump in the men’s throats and sends the ladies reaching for the box of tissues. Instead, it is just one more forgetable moment in a collection of many forgetable moments. Naturelle simply fades out, she is not torn from the man she loves, and it is not a stretch at all to imagine her shacked up with another wealthy man with an even bigger apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan in quite short order. She is barely twenty and she will probably never work a day in her life. And, it is Naturelle that makes the great dream of freedom and redemption posited by Monty’s father vanish like dew in the desert at the dawn of a blazing summer morning.
The most human and, I would say, fully developed character in this film is Monty’s father. James is a retired firefighter and recovering alcoholic. He seems to be wrestling with the circumstances of his son’s demise more than his son is. All the pathos of a father’s helplessness and his futile struggle against that helplessness comes out near the end of the film when he tells Monty that he doesn’t have to go to prison. Instead, they could make a run for it. He just wants his son to give him the word and they’ll go, out west, for a long time. Then there is another good scence sequence where we see this impossible dream playing out and we aren’t sure whose dream it really is, Monty’s or his dad’s. But, for a minute or two, we are lulled into believing that it’s possible. Perhaps they did make a run for it and it will work out. Monty does not unequivocally lay claim to our sympathies, but he does not evoke our total and irrevocable derision either (this is the problem with this character). When James, Monty’s father, is driving him to Otisville where Monty is sentenced to spend the next 7 years of his life, he says to his son, “Gimme the word and I’ll take a left turn.” “A left turn to where?” Monty sensibly asks. “Take the GW Bridge and out west,” James replies. From there, the film moves into a really wonderful scene sequence that we half believe, as James unfolds it through a voiceover, is possible.
The imagery is beautiful. The desert is a place to find God and a new beginning. James is wise to connect the two. Yet, as I mentioned, the dream morphs quickly into fantasy with the appearance of Naturelle. No one, not even James Brogin, can honestly believe for a moment that Naturelle would leave New York City to live in a dusty outpost of the southwest. That stretches the willing suspension of disbelief beyond the viewer’s capacity. Aside from that, however, the scene is stirring and even heartbreaking because it taps into a very basic but often ignored characteristic of man’s existential condition. We grow up. We become adults and assume the responsibilities that are part of that. Yet, our parents are always our parents. Mom is always mom and dad is always dad. In a time of personal tribulation, it is very human to recollect that earlier time in our lives when dad would save us. Lee and Benioff tap into this feeling in the closing scene sequence and deliver a very human experience. We are carried along with James’ dream of escape because we long for a loving father, a father who loves unconditionally and who will always have the answers and the right solution for any problem. As men, we long to be that kind of father. At the same time, we don’t want James to take such a risk on Monty. The son is not worth the risk. But, we are comforted that James is a father who loves his son and wants him to live the life he should have lived initially. The closing line of James’ monologue, “This life came so close to never happening,” is phenomenal. I’m guessing it was Benioff’s and probably in his novel as well. It was almost worth watching the film just to get to this line from Monty’s dad. It’s the best line of the entire film because it can be taken a couple of ways. On the one hand, the life James is dreaming of for his son, the life that is temporarily a latent reality, almost never happened because of a simple turn not taken. On the other hand, as the hopeless vision of a different future for his son begins to fade into futility, James comes back to himself and that line he says seems to be a rumination he makes more to himself. Monty had opportunities, good ones; the same opportunities his friends had. But, he squandered it. Again, Monty did not take a turn he should have away from criminal activity. It is this squandered life that came so close to never happening. That is the dramatic impetus of the film. It’s too bad we have to wait so long to get there.
Monty’s motives are never clear in this film. His conflict is evidently with himself, but that conflict is resolved just over a half an hour into the film. It seems after that, Monty’s great conflict is still with himself, viz a viz Naturelle. The question that preoccupies him is, did Naturelle turn him in? Monty talks to his father about it briefly, but never Naturelle. There is never a moment of truth between them. There is only the ambiguity of uncertainty and equivocal gestures. Monty’s story is not compelling because it is never clear what he has lost. When a character doesn’t appear to really care about anything, we don’t care about the character. Maybe Monty is not compelling like Jules in Pulp Fiction because he is not “the tyranny of evil men,” like Jules clearly is. Monty has lost his possessions, his money, and probably his girlfriend (whose investment in the relationship seemed questionable from beginning to end). But, nothing that defines who he is, or wants to be, is ever threatened. It’s never clear what does define Monty. Nothing ever rides on any choice he makes.
25th Hour is another film about joyless people with no motives for behaving in any particular way because their lives are not governed by anything like principles, or firmly held beliefs. Their lives are merely assumed modes of activity. Even Jules and Vince had certain principles in Pulp Fiction, albeit barbarically contorted principles. In 25th Hour, we are left wondering why these people get out of bed each morning. Maybe Lee should have called his film “Flatliners.” That would have been adequate.